Cooking-Fuel Choice and Time-Use of Women

In most cultures, household chores are primarily the responsibility of the women of the household. Cooking for the household occupies most of their time, which is not only limited to preparing the meals itself, but also collecting the fuel. In rural regions especially, with limited access to more efficient cooking-systems such as cooking stoves using LPG/Kerosene, women travel long distances to collect biofuel and use it to prepare food. Rishita Sankrit in this article investigates the role of cooking fuel choices on participation of women in different economic and non-economic activities.

Household responsibilities are primarily allotted to women in the Indian subcontinent, as in most cultures. This includes cooking, cleaning, taking care of the children and nursing the old amongst other things. The kitchen is especially a space solely occupied by women; their daily routines revolve around the next meal. Thus it is not surprising to expect one of the main components of cooking- the stove and the cooking fuel- to fundamentally affect the lives of women. Many studies show the adverse effects of biomass fuel on their health, from respiratory diseases to fertility issues. In India, most poor and rural households have a mud-constructed stove which uses biomass for fuel. Biofuels range from fuelwood, dung cakes, coal and crop residues, and have been shown to be correlated with various harmful health outcomes. And thus for a country with 74 percent of the population residing in rural areas, with uneven access to infrastructure, cooking using biofuel poses incredible threats to women.

However, biofuels do not only pose health threats to women, they also come with the drudgery of collecting, transporting and processing the fuel for consumption. Household members travel long distances to collect the fuel in order to minimize expenses on fuel, and women also participate in this time-consuming activity.  This task is primarily performed by women and young girls of the household. A WHO study finds that in Ghana women can go on to spend 3 times more time than men per week collecting wood, and that in most regions collecting fuelwood is almost exclusively considered women’s work. The study goes on to claim that the time lost in  collecting woods may be as high as 35 hours a week for women of the households using biofuel for cooking. Spending such extensive time could possibly lead to women losing out on important employment opportunities. However if they were to switch to a more convenient and efficient system of cooking, one would expect, in the simplest of terms, their lives to get easier. 

From health benefits to more spare time, there is a lot of convincing evidence to study the effects of cooking-fuel choices on women’s lives. What I investigate is the effect of cooking fuel choices on the activities that women are involved in on a daily basis , including economic activities. Using the two waves of Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS), 2005 and 2011-12, I study the comparative impact of switching their fuel choices from biofuel to LPG/Kerosene with those who did not make any such change. I find a significant increase in the probability of women’s engagement in their child’s homework and their participation in business related activities, relative to those who kept on using their original choices of fuel. My findings establish a positive prediction of women’s time-use as a result of using LPG/Kerosene.

Evidence from IHDS

Simply looking at the sample from the second round of IHDS, we can see that more than 50%, 32% and 16% percent of households use firewood, dung and crop residue respectively as their cooking-fuel sources (table 1). Houses also use multiple combinations of biofuels as well. With such a high proportion of households relying on biofuel, it beckons the question- on whom lies the primary onus of fuel collection? We can look at table 2 for an answer. Table 2 gives us minutes spent per week by the household members on collecting biofuel. As we can see women spend the most amount of time of about 4 hours a week, more than double the time spent by men of the household.

Types of fuels used for cooking Proportion of Household (IHDS-2) 
Fuelwood 52.1%
Dung 32.7%
Crop Residue 16.4%
Coal/Charcoal 3%
Kerosene 10.8%
LPG 39.2%
Table 1
 Minutes/week spent collecting fuel (IHDS-2) 
Women 245.21
Men 102.041
Girls 58.42
Boys 37.433
Table 2

Clearly, as indicated by literature and confirmed by the numbers from IHDS-2, women seem to be primarily responsible for fuel collection. Thus any changes that affect fuel collection, will also affect them. Especially in reference to time saved, if the households completely got rid of using biofuel for all purposes (say due to better access to electricity and use of LPG), women could potentially be saving at least 4 hours a week. And this time is not inclusive of the time saved in cooking and cleaning.

While in-depth research has been done in investigating the time-effectiveness of  switching to LPG, not much is available on where this extra time is spent. This time “saved” could be spent by the women by indulging in recreational and leisure activities or socializing. It  could also  enable them to give more time to their children, possibly being able to monitor their academics more strenuously or contribute in the household by taking part in economic activities, for which they may not have found time earlier. This could be especially true for poorer households where ‘all hands are on deck’ for putting food on the table; the opportunity cost of time spent by women on non-utilitarian tasks such as collecting fuel could be really high. Here I explore if the women are increasing their participation  in different economic and non-economic activities because of the change.

Results

I look at three groups as found in the data:

The Base group: This group comprises the individuals whose households were using biofuel in IHDS-1, and continued using biofuel in IHDS-2 as well. It acts as a base group in my regression analysis.

The Treatment group: This is the group of people who switched from biofuel in IHDS round 1 to LPG/Kerosene in IHDS-2. I call the switch the “treatment”, and finding the effect of this treatment is the objective of this study.

The Comparison group: This group constitutes individuals from families that did not change their fuel choices over the two survey rounds; they were originally using LPG/Kerosene as reported in IHDS-1 and continued using in IHDS-2 as well. I study the comparison group to see if the “treatment” effect is causal or not. If indeed the treatment causes changes in the outcomes for the treatment relative to the base group, then due to the absence of treatment we should not observe any changes for the comparison group.

The y-axis on the plots give the probability of change over the two rounds of the survey. The figures indicate the relative difference in changes between the base group vs. the treatment and the comparison group. Something close to zero would indicate that while the groups may have experienced changes, they were not any relative different from those of the base group.

An impact of the treatment is observed in respondents supervising their children in their homework (figure 1). The treatment group has a probability of around 5% more than the base group when it comes to supervising their children. Wherein we don’t observe any relative change for the comparison group. This could be indicative of the fact that changing to cooking fuel does create opportunities for mothers to spend more time with their children in their academics.

figure 1

I find similar results in business-related work. As can be seen in figure 2, for the treatment group the relative increase in taking part in business related activities is 2%, wherein the impact on the comparison group is very close to zero. This result is consistent with findings from a paper by Sonalde Desai and Pallavi Choudhuri, titled Gender Inequalities and Household Fuel Choice in India (2020), that predicts a higher likelihood of adopting cleaner fuels for women who engage in business work.

figure 2

Possible Mechanisms

I thus find, in line with the literature, that the probability of supervising their children in their homework and participating in business related activities has increased for the women in the treatment group relatively to the groups that did not switch to other modes of cooking. This effect could be attributed to the treatment (that is switching from biofuel to LPG/Kerosene), given that there is no significant change observed in the comparison group (group that was using and is using LPG/Kerosene in both IHDS round 1 and 2).

Conclusion

Switching to LPG/Kerosene from biofuel has been observed to significantly impact women in terms of the time they save and their health benefits. I find in this study that the change does have an impact on the activities women participate in; the relative probability of women engaging in their children’s academics and/or taking part in business related activities was found to be significantly higher than those who did not switch their fuel choices. However there are limitations to this study–  they in fact encourage a deeper dive into the study of women’s time use as a consequence of using more efficient cooking-fuel resources. An understanding of this phenomena could motivate policies to push for better technologies for women, so as to transfer the time lost because of domestic drudgery to leisure and recreational activities, and give them a chance to participate in economic activities.

Rishita Sankrit is a Teaching Fellow for Economics at Ashoka University. All the tables and the figures have been created by the author herself. Any discrepancy is unintended. 

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